Wednesday, October 21, 2009

George Eliot's Poetry by Rose Elizabeth Cleveland

Grover Cleveland's first hostess was his sister, Rose Elizabeth, who I wrote on earlier. Rose Elizabeth was a scholarly woman and wrote several books. This book, George Eliot's Poetry, earned her a considerable sum and definitely showed that she was willing to really critique the works she wrote on! Rose, as you'll see, was not impressed by George Eliot's poetry! I found the entire book on Google Books for you, but am just posting an excerpt here for you. You can read the entire thing online if you are interested.
I come at once to the consideration of George Eliot’s verse in the mention of two qualities which it seems to me to lack, and which I hold to be essentials of poetry.

The first of the two qualities has to do with form, and is a property, if not the whole, of the outside, that which affects and (if anything could do this) stops with the senses. Yet here, as elsewhere in this department of criticism, it is difficult to be exact. I ask myself, is it her prosidy? And am I obliged to find it faultless as Pope’s. There is never in her metres a syllable too much or too little. Mrs. Browning’s metre is often slovenly, her rhymes are often false. Yet, explain it who will, Elizabeth Browning’s verse has always poetry and music, which George Eliot’s lacks.

What was work to write is work to read. Ruskin’s dictum- “No great intellectual thing was ever done by great effort” – I suspect to be wholly true, and that is pre-eminently true in the production of poetry. Poetry must be the natural manner of the poet, and can never be assumed. I do not mean by this to ignore the aids which study gives genius; I only mean to say that no mere labor and culture can simulate poetic fire, or atone for its absence. George Eliot puts her wealth of message into the mould of poetic form by continuous effort…

George Eliot has been said to possess Shakespearean qualities. Perhaps just here, in the relation of manner to matter, is seen her greatest differences. No writer, all concede, ever carried and delivered so much as Shakespere, Never was human utterance so packed with wealthy meaning, so loaded with all things that can be thought or felt, inferred or dreamed, as his. And it all comes with gush and rush, or with gentle, murmuring flow, just as it can come, just as it must come. He takes no trouble, and he gives none. From his plays, replete with his incomparable wit, wisdom, and conceit, you emerge as from an ocean bath, exhilarated by the tossing of billows whose rough embrace dissolves to tenderest caress, yet carries in itself hints of central fire, of utmost horizon, of contact with things in heaven and earth undreamt of our philosophy. You come from one of George Eliot’s poems as from a Turkish bath of latest science and refinement,- appreciative of benefit, but so battered, beaten, and disjointed as to need repose before you can be conscious of refreshment.

The irony of fate spares not one shining mark. George Eliot cared most to have the name poet. But her gait betrays her in the borrowed robe.

A second quality which George Eliot’s poetry lacks is internal and intrinsic, pertaining to matter rather than manner, though, as will be suggested later on, standing, perhaps, in relation to manner of cause and effect. It is that, indeed, which all her works lack, but which prose, as prose, can get along without it; call it what you will, faith or transcendentalism; I prefer to define it negatively as antipode of agnosticism.

To epitomize, then. George Eliot’s pages are a labyrinth of wonder and beauty; crowded with ethics lofty and pure as Plato’s; with human natures fine and fresh as Shakespeare’s but a labyrinth in which you lose the guiding cord! With the attitude and utterance of her spirit confronting me, I cannot allow her verse to be poetry. She is the raconteur, not the vates, the scientist, not the seer.

Rose Cleveland devoted much of her life to literature and teaching. She even helped to publish a literary magazine, Literary Life, for awhile. She actually died in Italy, a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic, in her 70s and is buried here.

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